We call it the “bro hug.”
Here’s how it works.
He comes up to you, facing you, links his right arm with your right arm, elbows bent, hands reaching up to grab shoulders, squeezing hard, hard, hard –harder than a blood pressure cuff. If there is extra love and friendship to convey, his head bends towards yours, and the bro hug lingers on in tightness, intensity and meaning.
Sometimes it comes in moments of happiness, sometimes amid some private laughter and humor he is engaged in, sometimes to seek comfort and steadiness.
The bro hugs began close to two years ago spontaneously with D, as we were struggling to teach appropriate forms of touching and respect of people’s personal space. D was a guy who liked to get close sometimes, which we loved as his family, but which didn’t work well beyond our little sphere. Slowly we started phasing out various forms of affection, encouraging him to leave a circle of space between him and another person when he was inclined to get up close and personal.
One day he came up to me and linked his arm with mine tight, pulling me into his shoulder. Hey man! I love you too, I told him, patting him on the shoulder and kissing his cheek. Then I saw him repeat the hug with his father, his sister, his care givers and even try it with his grandmother.
Yes, I thought. This will work. This is appropriate. This is something we can encourage and enjoy. This is something that if he does it out in the community with someone who isn’t that familiar with him, can be accepted and explained well enough.
So, the bro hug became instituted into our family — encouraged, celebrated. And I, because I am around D the most, became the willing recipient of it at all hours and times of the day. When I’m cooking, he’ll come in for a bro hug as I’m trying to stir the onions. In the morning, when I’m gently and urgently hustling him to get ready for school while simultaneously getting breakfast ready, making lunches, readying backpacks, shoe and coats while watching for the bus and fighting against the clock – he’ll sometimes demand me to put a hard stop on everything and engage in the bro hug.
And not a short hug where bros lock arms, bump chests and hard pat each other before quickly releasing. But rather a long, sustained bro hug with intense pressure. I think he is attempting to fortify or steady himself through that hug for the long, challenging day ahead of him. Surely, it’s his way of showing approval and affection. Maybe he does the hug to fortify me against the nonstop worry and concern that bubbles beneath my surface.
Whatever it is, no matter how pressed for time I am, I pause to lean into it, appreciating this momentarily physical closeness he allows me, reveling in being able to encourage this mode of demonstrative affection and friendship that he wants to engage in.
I think he senses that I need to receive it as much as he needs to give it.
Last Friday, with the weeks’ worth of school, work, meetings, events, errands, classes and responsibilities mostly wrapped up, the family gathered in the basement in pursuit of various Friday night lazy activities: playing on the X-box, watching old Indian dramas on YouTube, listening to music with earphones plugged in, fooling around on WhatsApp groups. Grandparents, Baba, H and A engaged in some much-needed relaxation.
I was two stories above with D in his bedroom, hanging out with him as he grew sleepy. He was on and off upset and anxious, jumping up and down hard in his bedroom in a nighttime routine that has become all too familiar to us. When he seemed to find some calm and settle on his bed, I picked up the second Harry Potter volume to read a chapter to him.
He listened as I finished out the chapter, growing more and more still. I figured that perhaps he was ready to call it a night.
That’s when the sadness started.
Those who know, those who live this autism life like we do, will understand what I mean. The kind of sadness that wells up seemingly out of nowhere. The sadness that will rise in the body and face of a baby, toddler or child, when the chest starts heaving and the throat starts gasping, mouth screws up with emotion, nose begins flowing and the eyes grow red and tear-filled as they start spilling uncontrollably down the cheeks.
Except this is no baby, toddler or child who you can gather in your arms. This is a teen, a near-grown man abruptly and inextricably caught up in a soul-crushing, overwhelming bout of sadness. A person who cannot express the whys of his sadness, at least not in a way that is easily understandable even to his mother.
Oh, my jaanu, it’s ok. It’s ok. It’s ok. (It was not ok.) I love you. It’s ok. You’re ok. You’re safe. I’m here. Let me wipe your tears. Let’s get ready for bed, D.
He immediately stood up and went to the bathroom, tears streaming down his face. I helped him change and wash up, wiping his tears at every turn, wanting to kiss him, hug him, comfort him. But my touch wasn’t what he wanted.
He got in bed, and I drew his covers and weighted blanket over him, turned on the noise machine and turned off the lights. I’m not leaving, I told him as he sniffed and softly wailed and cried. I kneeled over the bed, hand hovering over his back, and he pushed me away. He didn’t want me touching him. He didn’t want me sitting or lying next to him.
But I knew him well enough. He wanted me there. As I’ve written a million times before and will so a million times again, he needed me to bear witness. I needed to bear witness to his pain, to his experience.
So, I sat next to his bed with his back to me, leaning over periodically to dab and gently wipe his tears, murmuring snatches of the Quran and prayers. After a minute, he turned over and crooked his right arm out to me.
I hooked my right arm with his in that familiar bro hug, and we stayed like that for a few minutes. It meant the world to me, his allowing me to touch him, comfort him. I knew that this hug wasn’t for his benefit, it was for mine. He knew that I needed this. And, there were so many things that folks were doing on a Friday night, but here we were.
I want to drown in this emotion with him. Sometimes that’s all I want, to give in and sink beneath that surface with him. To be there bearing witness isn’t enough. I want to feel what he is feeling, know what he is knowing, cry with him. So, I do.
Minutes later, his breathing grows regular and deep, and I know sleep is upon him. He naturally releases his hold on my arm, and I slip mine out of his. I love you. Have a good sleep, I say to him as I slip out the door. I take a minute at the top of the stairs to gather myself, then head to the basement to join the rest of the family.
There they are, playing X-box, watching dramas and YouTube videos, listening to music, fooling around on their phones. Living their lives, too. My younger daughter, son and husband are laughing hard at something they are watching. And I wonder – how do we switch gears? In mothering, how does one go from drowning to resurfacing to smiling, accepting, giving and receiving enjoyment and love? How does one shift between worlds, between children, between expectations and experiences, between emotions?
H sees me standing at the bottom of the stairs and excitedly calls to me – Mamma! Come here! You have to watch this!
So, I walk over.